On June 16, 1959 a man named George Reeves told the group of friends and fiancé gathered at his house that he was going to bed. A gun shot later, he was dead. If the name George Reeves, played by Ben Affleck in this film, doesn’t ring a bell (I had no idea who he was until I saw this film), he was the first person to play Superman on a television series that ran from 1952 to 1958. His death was ruled a suicide, but it had all the makings of an E! half-hour “Hollywood revealed”-ish feature. The party guests waited 45 minutes to call the police, his body showed evidence of a struggle beforehand, the shell casing of the bullet was found under his body, and there were additional gunshot marks in the room. So begins more or less the neo-noir Hollywoodland, directed by Allen Coulter, an alumnus of many HBO productions, most often The Sopranos.
Like most neo-noirs such as L. A. Confidential and peers, Hollywoodland treats studio-system era Hollywood like a juicy-looking orange that, when the outer skin is peeled away, is filled with a bunch of smelly maggots. In fact, the first shots of Hollywoodland have us sharing the idealistic viewpoint of Superman, floating through clouds above L.A. only to abruptly fall to ground to gritty reality — the scene of Reeves’s death.
The final goal of most noir films is obtaining the answer; Hollywoodland, on the other hand, is obsessed with the questions. The film’s obligatory private eye, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), convinces Reeves’s mother (Lois Smith) to allow him to stir up publicity to reopen the case. He mainly pushes the case to help his own economical situation. As Simo investigates the life of a seemingly boring man and B-list actor he uncovers many layers of the Hollywood world, each that could possibly have led to his death. He could have been killed by the woman with whom he had been having a lengthy affair and recently left, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) or perhaps her powerful, studio executive husband, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Then there is the possibility that the guilt is that of his new fiancée, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), who had just learned that the wedding was off. Of course, there is the final possibility that an increasingly down-and-out actor decided to take his own life.
Reeves, the center of the film, could not have been better played than anyone other than Affleck. His story is so similar it is almost scary, but certainly impressive, that Affleck could play such an introspective role. Both actors experienced a meteoric rise, only to be typecast and abandoned by the Hollywood elite. When Reeves looks at his grayish Superman costume with such longing, knowing he could do so much more, you feel that Affleck doesn’t need to act.
The other focus of the film, Simo is equally played by the talented Brody. Simo takes on the case to show his former colleagues, his ex-wife, his son, and, in some distant way, his own father, whom we never see, that he is capable of making something of himself. As a result, Simo becomes more and more consumed by the case. never realizing that what his family needs is a father, not a successful detective.
Of course the supporting cast is nothing to look down upon. Diane Lane is perfect as the sultry yet unfulfilled, sexy mistress of Reeves (will someone please give this woman an Oscar or Golden Globe). Bob Hoskins is also great as the much-feared studio executive Eddie Mannix.
Unfortunately, Hollywoodland, for all of its potential, gets lost somewhere in the middle. Its strong ending and beginning nearly make up for its slow midsection. Hollywoodland never connects well with its audience, and, therefore, fails to engage. The movie is filmed perfectly, but is just not fun to watch, and that is what strips it of its memorability. Still, it is an engaging story that is worth checking out.